When I was growing up, a ‘ray gun’ was a weapon that zapped somebody and turned them into a petrol attendant named Ray.
OK, that joke’s actually from The Tick. That aside, ‘rays’ were a staple of deco-era sci-fi, especially Edward Elmer ‘Doc’ Smith’s space operettas, where ‘rays’ – meaning an undefined something that either pulled (‘tractor beam’) or blew things up (‘ray’ or ‘beam’). The latter were often described by Smith as ‘ravening’.
Here’s a sentence from Spacehounds of IPC, which he completed in 1930. The hero, ‘Steve’ Stevens, is rescuing the people of Saturn’s icy moon Titan by destroying the base of the evil Sedlor: ‘As the raging beam ate deeper and deeper into the base of the cliff, the mountain itself began to disintegrate; block after gigantic block breaking off and crashing down into the flaming, boiling, seething cauldron which was the apex of that ravening beam.’
Later, Stevens and his girlfriend Nadia, flying a gimcrack spaceship that Stevens repaired by rebuilding Earth technology from scratch by himself (yes, really), are attacked by the evil Hexan super-scientists of Jupiter. Stevens counter-attacks with Titanian torpedoes fitted with pentavalent nitrogen warheads. Smith, whose PhD was in chemistry and not literature, described this with another extended sentence that, inevitably, had to include the magic word: ‘contemptuous of material projectiles, the spheres made no attempt to dodge, but merely lashed out upon them with their ravening rays.’ Of course the torpedoes got through and ‘the pent-up internal energy of solid pentavalent nitrogen was instantaneously released’. Yup. They went boom, with a very satisfying – er – boom, except there isn’t any sound in space.
At least the torpedoes weren’t ravening, unlike the rays. It’s possible, as somebody once remarked, that Smith kept using that word because it did not mean what he thought it meant. ‘Ravening’ derives from ‘ravenous’ and actually means ‘hungry’, with the implication of ‘hunting’ for food. But then again, it’s possible this is what Smith intended by it. Perhaps his rays were sentient.
Anyhow, the point is that Smith – particularly – popularised the whole idea of ‘rays’, but neither he nor his many imitators defined what they actually were. In Spacehounds, Smith implied that they operated at discrete frequencies, like electromagnetic radiation; and that ‘ray defences’ could be raised against them by matching those frequencies with the same energy in the opposite phase. This is easily possible in the real world; it’s how radio jamming works, for instance. The concept was considerably more plausible, indeed, than the nebulous ‘force fields’ of later writers (see what I did there?) But Smith never explicitly stated that his rays and counter-rays were electromagnetic.
Smith’s other beams – including ‘tractor beams’, which acted as a kind of tow-rope and didn’t require ferrous material to work – were hand-waved. Still, he described Spacehounds as ‘scientific fiction’, more so than his earlier ‘Skylark’ series.
Later authors took up the notion of ‘rays’, ‘tractor beams’, ‘force fields’, and so on, as a default. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of a decade later, for instance, used hand guns known as ‘blasters’. He never defined how they worked, although much later in the 1980s he ret-conned the concept; they emitted a massive pulse of microwaves and had energy sufficient for just a few shots before reloading. This was plausible although I suspect the energy needed to explode a target comprising 60 percent water, in an instant, with microwaves (as he described) is ridiculously huge and the gun might melt first, purely from transfer losses. I’m sure Asimov knew that very well, too, but hey… science fiction only has to be plausible. Asimov’s blasters could also be turned down to emit a low-power beam. There’s a scene in one of his later novels where a character uses a ‘blaster’ on low as an emergency heat source to clean down the space-suits of a returning crew contaminated by mould spores.
These days we have ‘rays’ in the form of lasers and various microwave emitters – and they simply don’t do what the 1930s dream supposed. A laser doesn’t even look like a gun – it’s closer to a camera, and for good reason, as predicted in 1958 by Robert A. Heinlein, whose description of alien blue-light guns in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel was precisely that – a camera with a funny looking lens. But I guess the issue with ‘ray guns’ being a homologue of projectile weapons is true of most science-fiction.
What’s actually happened, of course, is that our real-life world of ‘rays’ these days is nothing like the one envisaged in the 1930s. And to me that’s a pity. You see, I miss that golden age of deco-punk. It was wonderful in its style, its fearlessness, its messages of faith in human creativity and endeavour, and in the use of the word ‘ravening’. And I live in the very same city where Weta Workshop produce their Dr Grordbort ray guns. Last time I was in their shop – the ‘Weta Cave’ – I spotted a Pomson 6000, a snap at $4000 or some such figure. Gorgeous piece of kit, magnificently constructed and a wonderful piece of deco-punk design, easily worthy of a Smithian story.
What stopped me buying it was that that if I’m going to pay $4000 for a ray gun, I want one that actually works…
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020